Early in his rollicking set with The Witnesses, Louis Prima Jr. gazed at the sea of people bobbing on the Morristown Green and smiled.
“God, I missed this for 18 months!” he told Saturday’s crowd at the 10th annual Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival.
That seemed to be the prevailing sentiment on a pleasant late-summer day and evening, as five acts heralded the free festival’s return after a year’s COVID-19 hiatus.
Despite a 1.07 transmission rate that indicates the novel coronavirus is spreading in New Jersey, and concerns about breakthrough infections, pandemic-weary festival-goers bet on the safety of outdoor gatherings, free from capacity restrictions statewide since June.
“This is too great to miss,” said Patricia Brangs, a former Morris County resident who traveled from her retirement home at the Shore. Lawn chairs and beach blankets covered much of the two-acre square.
“It’s a taste of normalcy again,” said Tony Young, who has spent the pandemic doing his sales job from his Rockaway home. “I’m vaccinated, we’re outside, I’ve got my social distancing going on…it’s a beautiful day, a great day for a concert.”
Masks were rare on Saturday, and social distancing gave way to dancing in front of the stage.
At virtual town meetings throughout the summer, Mayor Tim Dougherty, the festival founder, urged residents to take the Delta variant seriously and continue following safety protocols. His administration postponed a return to in-person municipal meetings until Oct. 1, 2021, and pushed the festival from its traditional late August slot to late September.
Yet across the region, life is resembling something akin to normal. Children have returned to regular classroom schedules. Morristown’s Mayo Performing Arts Center and Broadway theaters have resumed full-capacity shows — for mask-wearing fans with proof of vaccination. MetLife Stadium requires no such proofs, or masks; more than 74,000 attended the Giants opener earlier this month.
“We’re about as careful as we can be. But we still live life and have to keep going,” said Frank Chambers of Madison, who enjoyed swing-dancing to the music with Carmen Garcia.
“We’re too old to wait a couple of years” for the virus to go away, remarked Garcia, who said attending the jazz fest felt “like heaven.”
Pam Huelster of Morristown said she would not feel comfortable yet at an indoor event. But she appreciated having the ability to keep her distance on Saturday and don a mask if she wished.
“It’s wonderful to hear live music again. I’m grateful to have the opportunity,” said Huelster, who hopes to resume indoor concerts with the Harmonium Choral Society this fall.
Tess, a retired teacher from Denville who declined to give her last name, was hesitant about attending the festival. She felt better after discovering the Atlantic Health mobile vaccination lab parked at the Green.
“It’s my third Pfizer, and I’m thrilled. I just texted my friends to tell them to come over here and do the same thing,” Tess said moments after getting her shot. With a gentle breeze and free music, it added up to a wonderful day, she said.
“We’ve been deprived for a long time.”
Near the end of the mobile stint, Atlantic nurse Kelly Ramos said 31 injections had been administered. Two were first doses, she said. Most of the others were third doses. At this time, only a limited number of people are eligible. Federal health officials are considering approving booster shots for everyone 65 and older.
MEMORIALS: LINDA, MICHAEL AND BUCKY
The festival included tributes to a COVID-19 victim, 94-year-old jazz guitar legend Bucky Pizzarelli, felled early in the pandemic.
The Frank Vignola Trio, which backed Pizzarelli at the festival in prior years, played a set of Pizzarelli’s signature tunes, ending with his favorite, Honeysuckle Rose.
“Bucky would have been saying, ‘Start the car,” Vignola remembered fondly. “That was his cue that it was the last song. ‘Start the car.'”
Vignola, guitarist Vinny Raniolo and bassist Gary Mazzaroppi invited some guest stars to their tribute set: Violinist Aaron Weinstein; acclaimed jazz guitarist Gene Bertoncini, who is 85 and recuperating from a recent hospitalization, and needed help getting on and off stage; and Ed Laub.
A former guitar student of Pizzarelli’s in Bergen County, Laub performed with his hero regularly in his later years.
Saturday was bittersweet for him.
“I miss him incredibly,” Laub said of Pizzarelli, who always looked forward to the Morristown festival.
“He loved the live crowds, he loved looking at people in the eye and playing for them and watching them smile. He was all about sharing his music with everybody,” Laub said.
As head of the Morristown Partnership, Fabrizio played a pivotal role in launching the festival, said co-promoter Don Jay Smith.
Dougherty remembered Fabrizio as his fishing buddy, best friend, and ghostwriter of his speeches. Fabrizio’s widow Lisa attended the festival with family members. An online drive is raising money to help the Fabrizio triplets continue their college educations.
Linda Smith was in charge of booking festival performers. In the 1990s, she and her husband Don helped save the Community Theatre, which became the Mayo Performing Arts Center.
Winard Harper & Jeli Posse closed their set Saturday by dedicating a life-affirming cover of Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely to Linda Smith, who died of breast cancer.
Headliner Rob Paparozzi gave a soulful harmonica rendition of Black Orpheus in her memory.
“Hopefully she’s looking down on me, knowing I did my best, and she would be okay with it,” Don Smith said after his first Morristown jazz fest without his spouse and partner.
Paid for by corporate donations, the annual festival is intended to promote Morristown’s downtown, according to the mayor, whose unopposed bid for a fourth term got some plugs from Smith onstage between acts on Saturday.
The band Swingadelic kicked off the festivities. Musicians from all the acts expressed delight at performing in the sunshine after so many months of pandemic darkness.
Taking a quick breather in a set overflowing with stage moves (including a “Look Ma, no hands!” moment from the trombonist, balancing the instrument on his mouth), sax player Marco Palos of Louis Prima Jr. and The Witnesses was asked how much fun he was having.
“Too much fun!” he exclaimed.
Harper, a drummer who gave sidewalk jazz concerts for his Jersey City neighbors through the pandemic, said he felt love from the Morristown audience.
“And that’s what it’s about. People were attentive, they enjoyed it,” he said after his set with the Jeli Posse. “We need it, and they need it.”
Our thanks to Morristown Green contributors Jeff Sovelove and Katharine Boyle for their photography.